By Laksiri Fernando –
From a long term perspective, cattle slaughter or animal slaughter in general is something that not only Sri Lanka but also the whole world should get rid of while finding sustainable alternatives for protein or nutrient intake in human diet. There is more awareness in the world today on the subject of animal rights or animal cruelty than any time in the past, for example two decades ago. Sri Lanka and India are best positioned to embrace this understanding than many other countries thanks to their Buddhist and Hindu religious traditions. But this understanding should not be applied superficially or for narrow political purposes.
One of my granddaughters, just nine years old, was showing me recently the similarities between the human face and the faces of many other animals highlighting that we all have similar face parts such as two eyes to see, a nose in the middle and a mouth underneath and two ears on both sides and asking me the question whether the animals do have a brain behind. My answer was instinctively affirmative. This was just few days before the dramatic self-immolation of the Buddhist monk, Bohowatte Indraratna thero, demanding the prohibition of cattle slaughter in Sri Lanka.
Consumption and Restrictions
The World Food Organization (FAO) says that “meat consumption is based on availability, price and tradition.” Meet consumption is held in high esteem in some countries while others deride the practice while indulging in it in some form. When I first went abroad to Canada in 1974, the welcome party for the postgraduate students was flanked by a decorated roasted head of a pig with an apple in its opened mouth. It was despicable to see and many Indian students could not partake in the dinner with disgust. This has become a common practice in some tourist hotels now in Sri Lanka at buffet dinners, I understand. In Japan, many people try to avoid eating meat but don’t have any qualms in approving whale hunting. The world seems to be more complex than what we are willing to admit.
Sri Lanka is amongst the lowest ranking countries in the world in terms of meat consumption along with India and Indonesia, estimated 10 grams per head per day while countries like Australia, Argentina, Uruguay and New Zealand ranking the highest consumers around 300 grams per day. But I have seen many Australian youth, particularly female, becoming vegetarian among the traditional white settlers and not necessarily the migrants. Ironically, however, India is one of the foremost beef exporters in the world. It is obviously not correct to say that India has completely prohibited cattle slaughter. It varies from State to State, however there is a Directive Principle of State Policy in the Constitution which says the following in Article 48.
“The State shall endeavour to organise agriculture and animal husbandry on modern and scientific lines and shall, in particular, take steps for preserving and improving the breeds, and prohibiting the slaughter of cows and calves and other milch and draught cattle.”
While there are some States that completely prohibit cattle slaughter, others do allow with some restrictions. There are no restrictions at all in States like, for example, Kerala. Most of the restrictions are in line with the directive principles quoted above and the transport of cattle from restricted states to non-restricted or less restricted states is a major problem of law enforcement.
Rules on Slaughter
Almost all democratic countries have adopted rules governing animal slaughter to prevent what is called ‘animal cruelty.’ In recent years Australia suspended live cattle exports to Indonesia and Egypt several times when it became revealed to the outraged public that the cattle slaughter methods in those countries have been cruel. Several media outlets frequently reveal these incidents of animal cruelty to the public.
There are some people who consider the above to be hypocritical, arguing that what is the point in preventing cruelty or having laws governing, if the cattle are anyway slaughtered? The argument is very much similar to the arguments against the ‘laws of war.’ If the war is inevitable and even justified then what is the point in having rules governing human rights or humanitarian concerns during war, or having any breaches or accountability investigated, they argue. It might be important to quote a section of the FAO guidelines on livestock slaughter to understand the underlying logic. This is only a segment of guidelines.
“At the time of slaughter, animals should be healthy and physiologically normal. Slaughter animals should be adequately rested. They should be rested, preferably overnight, particularly if they have travelled for some times over long distances. However, pigs and poultry are usually slaughtered on arrival as time and distances travelled are relatively short and holding in pens is stressful for them. Animals should be watered during holding and can be fed, if required. The holding period allows for injured and victimised animals to be identified and for sick animals to be quarantined.”
When you go through those concerns very carefully as stated above, it is obvious that we have to admit that animals do deserve their welfare and wellbeing. See the words: ‘animals should be adequately rested’ and “should be watered during holding and be fed.’ Of course, some of these guidelines are for the sake of human and consumers’ concerns, such as hygiene and disease prevention. But if the main concerns are logically extended, we are not far away from preventing slaughter or limiting it first. This is similar to the laws of war, incorporating human rights and humanitarian law and the prevention of war crimes. If these concerns are logically extended and the meanings are properly grasped, then we are on our way to prevent wars altogether and limiting them first.
Both Judaism and Islam have religious laws governing ritual slaughter of animals; nowadays used for slaughter for food with much controversy particularly among other religious believers. The solution may be to have secular laws appeasing these controversies but without imposing other religious beliefs. A major issue in Sri Lanka is the lack of clear secular laws or guidelines in livestock slaughter.
In the United States, the Department of Agriculture specifies the approved methods of livestock slaughter. In the United Kingdom, the matter is governed both by its own laws as well as EU rules. In both systems, inversion of cattle is completely prohibited as it amounts to extreme cruelty and stunning is mandatory before slaughter. These are some examples about how to deal with the issues progressively without resorting to extreme measures overnight creating displeasure and conflict among different communities and also preserving the rights of consumers to continue with their desire to consume meat, if they so wish.
Concerns in Sri Lanka
It was undoubtedly during the Portuguese period in Sri Lanka that the meat consumption greatly spread particularly in the western (maritime) provinces. Northern and Kandyan areas were largely unaffected and the discrepancy still seems to remain. Even within the traditional Hindu-Buddhist social settings, however, the craving for meat consumption remained at least as a human deviation.
During the revival of Buddhism and Hinduism in the late 19th and early 20th century, the issue of cattle slaughter took prominence along with temperance movement. Anagarika Dharmapala and Colonel Olcott were two prominent leaders on the Buddhist side. However, there is no evidence that they or their followers went into the extremes as Indraratna thero has resorted to. In the ‘Buddhist Catechism’ written by Olcott, the importance of the first precept was highlighted to “refrain from destroying the life of [all] beings” including cattle of course and one’s own. Quoting the Dhammika Sutta he further noted:
“Let him (householder) not destroy, or cause to be destroyed, any life at all, or sanction the act of those who do so. Let him refrain from even hurting any creature.”
Therefore, there is no question that the cattle slaughter or the way the cattle are slaughtered is undoubtedly a major issue for the Buddhists and even for others. It is not completely an exaggeration to say that the newspaper story that the then Prime Minister John Kotalawala indulged in roasting a calf in a barbecue party cost him his position at the next elections in 1956 among other related issues. I also remember the public outrage created when a professor at Vidyodaya (University) proposed rabbit breeding for meat consumption as a solution for the protein deficiency spreading in early 1970s. These issues are undoubtedly sensitive.
However, there has always been some hypocrisy attached to the agitation for the prohibition of cattle slaughter, particularly launched by political parties or leaders. They usually come and go. They are emotional and do not address to the rational mind. One day they propose overnight drastic changes and then all slogans are dropped when other inflammatory issues are picked up. There is no consistency. Worst of all is that these agitations are usually aimed against some ‘others.’ This is particularly the case at present.
During the last one and half years, two extremist groups, the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) and Sinhala Ravaya (SR), with clear political impunity from authorities, have been engaging in ferocious campaigns against the Muslim religion and the Muslim community, one issue after the other, and the present agitation against the cattle slaughter should be viewed in that context. As a result of this sectarian intention, the universal appeal of the issue of cattle slaughter is almost lost.
When Thich Quang Duc, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk set himself on fire against the Dinh Diem regime in 1963, although it could not be condoned, it was understood as a desperate situation given the political oppression in Vietnam at that time.
However, there is no justification for such an act at all in the present situation in Sri Lanka for the cause of Buddhism or any other matter while one may feel troubled by the disorientation of Indraratna thero and agony he must have gone through with his wounds. He didn’t die instantly although over 90 per cent of his body was burnt. It was simple self-torture, quite unnecessary and sad.
Self-immolation is a primitive ritual, the practice of which for political purposes should be condemned as it borders on political violence and even terrorism. It is not personal suicide or simple self-sacrifice. It might be left for the psychologists to analyse the motives behind such an act and it should be done beyond simple condemnation. The danger of such an act is the possibility of others trying to emulate it. It highlights the complexity between the objectivity and subjectivity of human existence particularly in confused political circumstances such as the present situation in Sri Lanka and the danger of the spread of ‘true believers.’ It is a ‘sin’ if not a crime to encourage those people in society.
As Eric Hoffer said, all ‘True Believers’ are characterized by:
“Their readiness to die and a proclivity for united action; all of them, irrespective of the doctrine they preach and the program they project breed fanaticism, enthusiasm, fervent hope, hatred and intolerance; all of them are capable of releasing a powerful flow of activity in certain departments of life; all of them demand blind faith and single handed allegiance.”